November 13, 2018

Wallis’s world: The Annenberg heir launches Beverly Hills performing arts center with glamorous gala

If Wallis Annenberg hadn’t become famous for her philanthropy, she’d have become famous anyway for her parties.

The billionaire heiress to father Walter’s publishing fortune – who at one point counted TV Guide and Seventeen magazine among his holdings – has none of her father’s business ambition but has soundly inherited his public beneficence. With a flashier flair for what's in fashion.

With the launch of the latest public space to bear the family name – the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, soon to be known as simply, The Wallis – the Annenberg heiress has proven she isn’t merely standing on the shoulders of a visionary giant, but has become one herself.

Two city blocks in Beverly Hills were closed last night to make way for a gaggle of glamorous guests out to celebrate the center’s grand opening, including Eli Broad, Vanessa and Jacqui Getty, Gia Coppola, Ed Ruscha, Jodie Foster, Charlize Theron and rock-star couple Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale — to name a few. “This,” one prominent Jewish philanthropist and million-dollar donor gushed, “is an A-list party.”

But the belle of the ball was really Wallis, who without much fanfare has expanded her father’s emphasis on education, media and the arts to include the performing arts, environmental activism, social justice and animal welfare. And in recent years, she has quietly championed a number of public spaces in Los Angeles that have made it a more admirable city.

In addition to running the family foundation that built the Annenberg Schools for Communication at UPenn and USC, the Annenberg Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City, the Annenberg Community Beach House in Santa Monica and countless other communal initiatives, Wallis then offered the lead gift ($5 million) to build a swanky, new state of the art theater facility connected to the historic Beverly Hills Post Office. The place that once processed Tennessee Williams’s letters would soon become a venue that could also stage his plays.

Today, the mostly brick building has been boldly restored, lavished with bronze and marble, and stood as glamorous and gleaming as the thousand guests that poured out of luxury cars and into its grand Roman hall. There, Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo set up a “pop up” shop where guests could buy architectonic stilettoes and golden clutches as pricey as a piece of art.

“They’re saying this line is Old Hollywood,” one of the sales attendants told me, “but I think it’s more Andy Warhol.”

Old meets new might have been the theme of the evening, where the Post Office built in 1933 under FDR now swarmed with stars and celebrities and ladies tasked with policing party PR. Was that Demi Moore looking over-Ashton beatific in a beaded blue backless? And the young Camilla Belle in a peach chiffon princess dress cozying up to her ex- (Jonas Brother) Joe Jonas? And just look at those two Slumdog stars, Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto, seeming so happily ever after. It’s so un-Hollywood! Smile for the cameras, now.

Way back when, Humphrey Bogart mailed his letters here and Fred Astaire danced in the lobby. On this night, live performers floated above the valet line on springy stilts, dancing in the wind to a show of light and sound. And in the backyard promenade terrace, separating the post office from the new theater designed by Zoltan Pali (rules of historic preservation prohibit any new construction from touching the old building) LA’s high society sipped champagne and scotch to the strummings of a mariachi band while women dressed as Spanish-styled eye candy swished through the crowd in canary-colored costumes and giant floral headdresses. So many warm bodies, and only the hors d’oeuvres sat cold; as “Girls” creator Lena Dunham recently tweeted in the words of her designer pal Zac Posen: “If you want to be left alone at a Hollywood party, just stand near the food.”

After cocktails, guests were ushered in two shifts to accommodate the large crowd, into the adjacent Goldsmith Theater (named for Jewish Federation machers Elaine and Bram Goldsmith, who, along with Annenberg and the City of Beverly Hills, each donated $5 million or more to create the center) where an original performance recounted the history of the post office.

Told through the letters of its grand old patrons – Martha Graham to Aaron Copland, Groucho Marx to Woody Allen, Tennessee Williams to Texan stage producer Margo Jones (on the eve of opening her own regional theater), the 30-minute show featured surprise cameos from Kevin Spacey, Diane Lane and John Lithgow, and offered a sneak peak of what’s to come onstage here, including Broadway musicals, contemporary dance, ballet and orchestral soloists.

But it was the street dancer Lil Buck, who stole the show, dancing to an Ave Maria violin solo the way Michael Jackson might have danced had he known ballet. Call it ballet-hop.  

And that was only Act II.

“Are you as fond of being with 1,000 of your closest friends as I am?” one gentleman whispered to another as guests poured out of the theater and into the block-long tent erected on Crescent Drive where Wolfgang Puck served filet mignon and truffled risotto.

Wallis herself sat at the entrance to the tent, table No. 43, with actors Charlize Theron and Tim Robbins as well as former studio chief Sherry Lansing. Next to her was a vacant seat, where a rotating cast of characters came to charm and celebrate her throughout the evening.

Dinner was followed by a Ferragamo fashion show, featuring a flock of phlegmatic models so thin they looked pre-pubescent. Then, the young Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo, who sounds like Pavarotti but looks like a Michelangelo performed a stunning set of opera ballads that made even the beautiful and talented seem a little dull by comparison.

Wallis promised world-class culture and even before the center’s official opening in November, she has delivered.

Goodbye Old-guard Annenberg. Hello, Wallis.